Leading article: The intelligence services have grown too powerful

Their role in the political processes of this country has been deeply questionable

Share
Related Topics

Sir John Sawers became the first serving head of MI6 to make a public speech last month. The intelligence chief used the platform to assert that his agents have nothing whatsoever to do with the "illegal and abhorrent" practice of torture. Sir John was widely praised for drawing a clear ethical line.

But yesterday sixteen individuals, who claim to have suffered torture abroad in which UK intelligence forces were complicit, were awarded compensation by the Government. This raises an awkward question. If the claims of these individuals had no truth to them, as Sir John implies, why have they been compensated? The Government has stressed that the payouts are not an admission of culpability. But Sir John's assurances on torture suddenly seem considerably less solid.

The welcome news is that with the civil action brought by these individuals now settled, the judicial inquiry into the behaviour of the British intelligence services promised by the Prime Minister in July moves a step closer. That inquiry, to be chaired by Sir Peter Gibson, must wait upon the results of a separate police investigation into the individuals' complaints of abuse. But, either way, we seem to be moving closer to a reckoning on this subject.

Sir Peter's inquiry needs to examine the cases of these sixteen individuals closely. And there must be scope for prosecuting any intelligence officers who are discovered to have been complicit in torture. Proclamations from intelligence chiefs about the abhorrence of torture are no use if those who engage in it do not face criminal sanctions. The inquiry must also look into British involvement in "rendering" terror suspects across national jurisdictions for imprisonment or questioning. This practice opens the door to torture. It is much easier to abuse someone's human rights when no one knows where they are.

But there is a case for a wider examination of the behaviour of the intelligence services by Sir Peter too. In recent years their role, not just in the so-called "war on terror", but in the political processes of this country, has been deeply questionable. It has been suggested that compensation was agreed for these former terror suspects, in part, because of fierce resistance from the intelligence services to the prospect of agents being called to give evidence in open court. This is dangerous. It is intolerable that the process of law can be interfered with by the intelligence services.

This reflects a broader tension between the intelligence services and the judiciary. Yesterday's settlement follows a titanic Whitehall battle earlier this year over the courts' publication of evidence showing that MI6 knew that one of the individuals in question, Binyam Mohamed, had been tortured in Morocco.

There is a questionable relationship between the intelligence services and elected politicians too. The previous Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, under advice from the intelligence services, led an unsuccessful attempt to block the courts' release of evidence relating to Mr Mohamed's mistreatment. Mr Miliband argued that the information would harm national security and damage our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States. Yet when the evidence was made public by the Court of Appeal, it was immediately clear that it contained nothing that justified Mr Miliband's attempt at suppression. This setback has been casually brushed off by the intelligence services. They are now lobbying the present administration to retain control orders for terror suspects, despite a Coalition pledge to review their use.

This all adds up to a malign pattern of behaviour. The intelligence services have grown over-mighty. They do a valuable and often dangerous job in safeguarding the public. But they need to be subject to democratic authority and judicial oversight. In short, they need to learn their proper place.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Harman has said her gender affected her employment  

Gordon Brown could have had a woman as deputy PM. He bottled it

Joan Smith
Barclays are reducing the number of staff in their branches - and giving those remain ipads  

A bag? In the bagging area? Whatever next?

Andrew Martin
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?